“Nice hair color,” was my first welcome into Japan. My first reaction to this small, bald man was to tell him he couldn’t have my hair, but before I brought myself to reply to him, he looked at my uncle, pointed at me, and proclaimed, “big nose.'” You don’t entirely understand culture shock until you have gone into another country. You go expecting what Hollywood portrays and find only alien customs and strange people you thought you knew about. You learn what it means to be a foreigner. Such was my experience.
This man wasn’t trying to be rude; he was only making an observation that he found astounding since most Japanese people are very small with small features. For the most part, the people of Japan are courteous and hospitable. I remember walking through an exhibit in the Tokyo Museum and looking at the artifacts wondering what everything was, when a beautiful Japanese woman started translating the descriptions for me. She didn’t work there; she was visiting the museum too, but her kindness in going out of her way to explain and share her culture with me touched me.
The only time in Tokyo that I didn’t feel welcomed was when we commuted on the trains and subways; this is where I really learned what rush hour means. The stations are crammed with people. Like salmon, they all make their way to their destinations, stopping for no one and allowing none to divert from the strong torrent, while white-gloved people are paid to push and pack other people onto the trains and subways like sardines. The trains and subways are jam-packed with advertisements all screaming “Buy me! Buy me!” Color greets you as you walk in, and signs constantly wave at you in an attempt to brainwash you while you ride. There are endless staircases that lead into mazes of more staircases until you finally reach the surface, only to move more vigorously on the crowded sidewalk or get in a taxi driving on a two-way, one-lane road! The pulse of Tokyo wore me out. I often wondered if the Japanese people ever found time to breathe and relax, or if they let the rhythm of Tokyo drive them to the grave.
Then, I discovered the peace of the Japanese temples. The rhythm in these wonderful sanctuaries is closer to a tranquil heartbeat than the rush of civilization. The temples are humble and simple, much of it made out of wood and bamboo. The ornaments are elaborate but not extravagant. There are worshipers meditating, throwing coins in a huge collection boxes, and praying with prayer wheels. Soft bells ring and incense smokes sometimes fill the air. I loved all the temples and shrines; whether for Buddhists and Shintoists, I didn’t care, so long as I could taste of their sweet harmony and learn about their beliefs. I had the opportunity to witness Buddhist priests meditating. Several of them sat in front of a Buddha statue and chanted along with another priest who rang a gong periodically. I also watched a Shinto bridal procession and saw the lovely bride. She looked like a solemn goddess dressed in layers of white and wore a high white hood over her head as she walked.
Temples are coupled with fantastic gardens. I got lost in them, discovering around every corner, a small shrine in a grove of strange trees or a pond filled with coy as long as I am tall. I saw the famous Nanzenji Garden, a garden entirely made up of rocks and racked gravel. Such art struck me. What patience it must take to create such a masterpiece! I find that the Japanese create their gardens with such minute detail that only those who pull themselves away from the rush and investigate can appreciate its beauty. Through gardens I discovered a new world of a rich beauty that I eagerly drank in.
I have a love and respect for Japan’s people and culture. I learned how to appreciate the spirituality and art another culture has to offer, but the most important thing that Japan brought me was the feeling of being a foreigner; however uncomfortable it made me, I’m grateful because I discovered the fear new comers to the US have. I now try hard to return the kindness I received in a museum far from home and remember the lesson taught to me by beautiful Japanese woman.
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